Many rabbit owners come to think of their rabbits as children. They lavish their bunnies with all the indulgence and attention one might give to a small child, never missing an opportunity to slip Flopsy a treat. Unfortunately, rabbits that are consistently spoiled by overfeeding of treats, and especially the wrong treats, will suffer severe health problems. Excessive snacking is a common cause of obesity and other health problems in pet rabbits, but is easily avoided by following some common-sense guidelines.
It helps to begin with a basic understanding of the rabbit digestive system. When a rabbit eats, the food first passes into the stomach. Not much happens here- the food is simply sterilized to prepare it for further digestion. The food continues down into the small colon, where the majority of the sugar and protein is digested, as in humans. Indigestible fiber continues down the digestive tract, and although no nutrients are absorbed from it, it cleans out the tract and conditions the muscles that keep waste moving through the system, before being excreted as the hard, dry pellets you find in the litterbox.
At this point, though, a great deal of the mass of hay and grass the rabbit has eaten has not yet been digested. These tough, hard to digest materials are diverted into an organ called the cecum, which is home to a thriving bacterial metropolis. These beneficial bacteria do the dirty work of breaking down tough compounds like lignin and cellulose, which would otherwise be impossible to digest. The partially digested food, clumped into mucous-covered pellets called cecotrophes or “night pellets”, is then passed back into the colon and excreted, only to be immediately re-ingested by the rabbit! This “coprophagic” behavior isn’t something you want to think about much if you’re squeamish, but luckily, it tends to happen out of sight- hence the term “night pellets.” Pleasant or not, it is an absolutely essential biological process for rabbits, and anything that disturbs this process will lead to health problems.
The bacterial colony in the cecum is delicately balanced. Beneficial bacteria must compete with “squatter” bacteria that do not contribute to the digestive process, as well as adapting to the rabbit’s internal chemistry. They thrive on consistency- no news is good news, as far as cecal bacteria are concerned. When you give a rabbit a sweet, sugary treat, those bacteria suddenly have a rich supply of quick, easy energy to feed on, and their population explodes. The chemistry of the cecum shifts, and the bacteria have to struggle to adjust. When this happens, rabbit owners often observe what is known in technical terms as “poopy butt syndrome.” The rabbit’s cecotrophes lose their consistency, and instead of passing cleanly from the anus and being re-eaten, they cake onto the rabbit’s rear. This can lead to a whole host of other problems, and if the problem is not addressed, may end in death.
At this point, you might be wondering, “Why give rabbits treats at all?” The answer is pretty straightforward: for all the same reasons you would give a child an ice cream cone. It makes the child happy, which is its own reward, and it can be a great way to reinforce a positive behavior. Rabbits are the same. They enjoy those rich, sweet snacks just as much as we do, and a little dessert now and again will be a pleasure to your bunny. Moreover, treats are extremely useful when it comes to litter training, teaching tricks, or simply establishing a pet-owner bond. When healthful treats are given in sensible quantities, the end results should be an improvement in the rabbit’s overall quality of life.
Rabbit treats usually fall into one of several categories: Compressed cereal bars/sticks, mueslix, pellets or puffed kibble, and candied treats. What all types of rabbit treats have in common are high levels of sugar, fat, protein, and starch. Any one of these nutrients can lead to the kinds of problems mentioned earlier, so it’s important to restrict your rabbit’s intake of any treat. Yoghurt-covered cqandy drops are the worst culprits in this respect, and though many rabbits love these treats, they should probably be avoided except on the most special occasions, or when the rabbit is underweight. Seed and grain mixes seem are a better alternative, as they contain little sugar, but remember that seeds are rich, high-protein packages. Rabbits retain body fat even better than humans, so that they can keep warm while wintering, but since you should be keeping your rabbit indoors for the winter, you want to keep them from bulking up unnecessarily. As an alternative to packaged treats, try fresh fruit. Rabbits typically enjoy berries, melon, papaya, apple (without stem or seeds), and many others. Bananas are a bit more starchy and sweet than you really want, so they should probably be avoided.
At the end of the day, rabbits are individuals, and there are no hard and fast rules for them. The best way to give your rabbits treats in a sensible, healthy manner is to introduce them as gradually as possible. As you begin to give treats on a limited basis, keep observing your rabbit. If he loses appetite, develops diarrhea or becomes gassy, or begins to put on weight excessively, stop giving treats for a while. When the problem is resolved, you can try offering something else, ideally something with a lower sugar or protein content. Keep experimenting, but always be patient and conservative. You should be able to find a healthy balance for your rabbit, one that is stimulating and enjoyable without negatively impacting its overall quality of life.